Ukraine-Russia: Woman opens up on 40-day battle to get mother’s visa approved

When war broke out in her native Ukraine in February, Victoria Gillies’ first thought was to get her mother out of the country.

Mariia Syshchenko, 65, a retired hairdresser, lived in an apartment in the western Ukrainian city of Ternopil.

Although the west of the country was initially regarded as safer as Russian forces moved in to the eastern region of Donbas in the early days of the conflict, Ms Gillies began the process of bringing her mother to Scotland through the UK Government’s family visa scheme.

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Forty days on after a lengthy battle with the Home Office to get her visa approved, Ms Syshchenko has finally arrived at her daughter's home in West Kilbride, where she lives with her husband, Clark and their two daughters, Nicole and Charlotte, aged five and nine.

Victoria Gillies and her mother Mariia Syshchenko

The family had to make daily phone calls – and involve local MP Patricia Gibson – to get the visa approved. After a nine-hour journey from Ukraine to Poland, Ms Syshchekno finally arrived at Edinburgh Airport on Thursday.

"I am never letting her away from me again,” says Ms Gillies. "I’m overwhelmed, really delighted and absolutely over the moon that she is here.”

Her daughters woke up on Friday morning to find their grandmother had arrived late the previous night.

“It was a surprise to them, because they didn't know she was coming,” Ms Syshchekno says. “My older daughter said it was like Christmas morning and she was just jumping up and down. And then, of course, they said they didn’t want to go to school, they just wanted to spend time with her. But I told them they have a lot of time to spend with her now.”

Although happy to have her mother safe in Scotland, Ms Gillies is upset the family has had to go through weeks of worry.

“Family members should have number one priority,” she says. “I've been here for the last 15 years, my husband is Scottish and I've been paying my taxes and everything. We waited for 40 days. We had to contact our local MP many, many times and I was just trying to get as much information as possible.

"I don’t know if the system works in that if someone is younger, they are a priority, like they think ‘we can give them jobs’ – so they get the right over a pensioner, but that's a horrible thing to say.”

Her persistence with the Home Office eventually saw her mother’s visa granted, but she found the process stressful.

"Every day I was phoning, just to give them a wee poke, and they were coming back with these stupid excuses like they thought her passport has expired, or that it wasn’t a national passport,” she says.

"They lost our emails. It was absolutely horrendous. It feels like they tried to pull it out and make it longer and more longer. Maybe they were thinking that hopefully by the time they had to deal with it the war would be finished or something.

"It was just disgraceful. It’s not like she has a dodgy passport or a criminal record. She has been here many times before to visit me, so the Home Office would just have to pull her record up on the computer. It should have been straightforward.

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“I'm still kind of frustrated, but I'm really happy she's here with me now.”

However, the day before Ms Syshchenko was due to board a bus to leave Ukraine, six missiles landed just half an hour away from her house. Ms Gillies was concerned that attacks in the region could escalate, with Russian forces potentially targeting the main roads.

"As soon as I heard she was over the border, it was like ‘she’s safe’,” she says. “That was the first time I could feel that since the war started. I just never knew what was going to happen to her..”

Ms Syshchenko’s town, like most places in Ukraine, had been faced with constant air raid alerts.

"It’s a horrible thing to say, but she just got used to [the sirens] four or five times a day, every day,” says Ms Gillies. “She said it had just got to a point where people got on with their lives and didn’t shelter. They all got used to the horrible noises and panic attacks.”

Her mother had spoken to some women on the bus to Poland who had come from Mariupol, which has been invaded by Russian forces. The vast majority of buildings in the city have been damaged or entirely destroyed by Russian shelling.

"They said to her that there are just bodies lying everywhere on the streets, but you just get used to it,” Ms Gillies says. “I can’t even imagine how you get used to it, but you do, you get used to living in hell.”

Ms Syshchenko, who retired five years ago, had been helping out with the volunteer effort in Ukraine, which she hopes to continue in Scotland.

She has allowed refugees who have fled from elsewhere in Ukraine to live in a property she owns in a nearby village to Ternopil, which she had inherited from her mother, while she was also involved in community groups who cooked for those displaced from their homes.

Ms Gillies had been looking for a new job since her youngest daughter started school, but has decided to put her job hunt on hold to also volunteer for the Ukrainian community.

"I want to help my fellow people, that kind of stuff is more important for me at the moment,” she says.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “In response to Putin’s barbaric invasion we launched one of the fastest and biggest visa schemes in UK history. Over 95,500 visas have been issued so Ukrainians can live and work in the UK. The changes the Home Office has made to streamline the visa system, including simplifying the forms and boosting staff numbers, are working and we are now processing visas as quickly as they come in, enabling thousands more Ukrainians to come through our uncapped routes.”

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